Customizing our clothes has long been a form of self-expression. People are always choosing the clothes they wear based on how they want to present themselves to the world.
Dying clothes is no different. Some people prefer to only wear neutral or pastel colors, while others prefer to dress in bright pops of color.
For those of us who love to tie-dye our clothes, we know that cotton is the best type of fabric. But what if we have a piece of clothing we want to tie -ye that isn’t a natural fiber? What about our synthetic clothes, like polyester?
So, can you tie-dye polyester? By using special disperse dyes designed for synthetic fabrics and combining the dye with high levels of heat, you can tie-dye polyester fabric. However, you won’t be able to get the same effect as with tie-dying natural fabrics because polyester requires complete immersion into the dye.
It’s not nearly as easy as tie-dying natural fibers, and you won’t be able to use multiple colors. But it is possible, and in this article we’ll share everything you need to know in order to turn those drab polyester clothes into works of art.
Usually, tie-dye is a fun and easy afternoon project. When using natural fibers, it’s as easy as binding the fabric in a fun pattern, squirting the dye onto the fabric, and letting it sit for a few hours before a quick rinse and wash.
It’s easy to dye natural fibers because they’re open to absorbing the liquid dye. The fibers themselves are hydrophilic, or absorbent to liquids. So when exposed to a liquid dye, they take on that dye into the fibers themselves.
For synthetic dyes, they’re a little different. Synthetic dyes are man-made, and polyester is created from polymers to create a kind of plastic fiber. This fiber is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water.
As we all know, liquid runs right off of materials like plastic rather than absorbing into it. This same principle applies to polyester fibers and should be taken into account when deciding to dye polyester fabric.
100% Polyester Fabric
As we mentioned above, polyester is a type of plastic fiber. This means it’s hydrophobic and resistant to being dyed with regular liquid dyes.
However, while polyester doesn’t exactly make it to our list of the best fabrics for tie-dye, you can still dye it. It requires a special kind of dye called disperse dye, specifically designed to be absorbed by synthetic fabrics. Disperse dye essentially holds powder pigmentation inside liquid. When the liquid is applied, the powder travels through the liquid and onto the fabric.
Polyester also requires heat to take on dye. The heat helps the fibers open up, allowing the powder pigment of the disperse dyes into the fibers to change their color. Without the heat, the polyester fibers won’t open enough to allow the powder in.
Dyed polyester fabrics won’t get as dark or rich in color as dyed natural fabrics. You’ll likely get a much lighter shade than you would with cotton, but you can still get vibrant colors depending on the base color of the fabric, the dye you purchase, and the heat you expose it to.
If you’re not sure what kind of colors you’ll be going for, we recommend our article for the best tie-dye color combinations.
If your fabric is a polyester blend, special considerations will need to be made.
It’s common practice for clothing and textile manufacturers to blend polyester with another kind of fiber, like cotton, so that the material is softer to the touch and more flexible and breathable.
But can you dye those blends? It depends on what your polyester fibers have been mixed with.
If your polyester fabric is actually a blend of polyester and cotton, you’re usually good to use regular dye as you would with 100% cotton. There should be enough cotton fibers in the fabric to be dyed the traditional way, though you still won’t get the vibrancy you would with 100% cotton.
If your polyester fabric is a blend with spandex, which is a common combination for leggings and exercise attire, then it’s not able to be dyed. Spandex can’t tolerate the high temperatures that it takes to get the polyester fibers to open up and take the dye.
A good rule of thumb is if your material contains more than 35% synthetic fibers, it will require special synthetic dyes. Read the labels on your fabric or clothing items to know whether you’ll need regular dye or synthetic dye.
How To Tie-Dye Polyester
1. Inspect The Fabric
The first step you’ll need to take in tie-dying polyester is to inspect the fabric.
If it’s a bolt of fabric purchased from a craft store, look on the end of the fabric bolt to see if it’s 100% polyester or a polyester blend. If you purchased an already made clothing item, check the clothing tag.
While checking the tag on a ready-made clothing item, you’ll also want to take note of the washing instructions. If this is a fabric that can only be dry-cleaned, you can’t dye it. The fabric won’t be able to survive the boiling water for the dye bath.
Look over the fabric for any tears, holes, stains, or faded spots. These imperfections will show up in the final dye, and you may want to take note of them first to decide if it’s worth it to try and dye them.
Finally, consider any pleats or folds of the original garment. Pleats are often heat-treated into the polyester fabric, and exposing those pleats to heat once more will likely ruin or damage them.
2. Prepare The Fabric
Just as with natural fabrics, polyester will need to be washed before it can be dyed. This ensures the fabric is ready to take on any added chemicals and there aren’t any barriers that would prevent total absorption, such as oils.
Using soda ash or Synthrapol will ensure that your fabric is free and clear of any dirt and oils that may affect the dye’s ability to bond with the fibers. Plus, if you choose to use soda ash, you get the additional bonus of enhancing the way the dye will set by scouring the fabric.
If you don’t have soda ash or Synthrapol handy, a regular wash will do just fine. The goal is to rid the fabric of any dirt, oils, or other chemicals that might affect the dying process.
3. Prepare The Dye Bath
The way you prepare your dye bath will depend on what brand of dye you’ve purchased. Some brands will need additives or dye carriers to complete the process, and some dyes come readily made to be added to the water.
Generally, you’ll want to get the largest metal pot you own (large enough for all the water and the fabric), add the amount of water recommended on your dye’s directions, and bring it to a boil.
Once the water is boiling, you’ll add the fabric dye based on the manufacturer’s directions. Pay special attention to any potential additives or temperature instructions.
The order of steps for preparing the dye and hot water will depend on the manufacturer of your dye. Some manufacturers have the dye added prior to the water boiling. For best results, follow the directions on your dye package.
It’s a good idea to keep a thermometer on hand, too. You’ll want to monitor the temperature of the water to make sure it’s within the desired range, usually around 200-250ºF.
4. Immerse The Fabric
Once the dye bath is prepared according to instructions, add your fabric.
The fabric will need to stay immersed in the dye bath for about 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the fabric and the directions of your dye. For darker colors, leave the fabric in longer. If your desired result is a lighter, pastel color, 30 minutes should be fine.
It’s important to frequently stir as your fabric is in the dye bath. This will help to ensure even coverage and prevent any obvious dark/light spots from the fabric sitting in one place for too long.
Remember that to achieve a tie-dye look, you’ll have to have the fabric bunched and rubber-banded. The dye may slip through the rubber bands anyway, so be prepared for inconsistent results when tie-dying polyester fabric.
We mentioned earlier that you’d only be able to use one color for tie-dying polyester fabrics. This is due to the immersion nature of dying polyester. If you want to add two different colors to your fabric, simply immerse only the part of the fabric you wish to dye that color.
You’ll have to repeat these steps with a different pot if you want to dye the other part of your fabric a second color.
5. Rinse The Fabric
While your fabric is in the dye bath, get a second large pot and fill it with water, bringing it to a boil. This will become your rinse pot.
Once your fabric has been in the dye bath for your desired amount of time, move it into the rinse pot and stir it around to rinse the fabric. Rinsing it in hot water will help get rid of any excess dye.
6. Final Wash
Now that your fabric has been dyed and rinsed, you’re ready for the final wash.
An easy way to do this is to empty out the dye bath, rinse the pot, and add more water to bring a new pot of water to boil. This time, you’ll use the Synthrapol again, as this product is good for use before and after dying.
Wash the fabric in the water and Synthrapol bath you’ve prepared, then give it one final rinse off. If you still smell any odor after this final rinse, you’ll need to repeat the wash and rinse again to remove any excess dye.
Now, simply dry your fabric! It’s ready to wear and be washed in the machine with other clothes.
Other Dye Methods
The immersion method is the best way to dye polyester fabrics, but not the only way.
Alternatively, you can brush on the dye. To do this, mix the disperse dye with a little bit of fabric paint and paint it directly onto the fabric using a brush or sponge.
There are also fabric crayons out there that can be used to draw any design you wish directly onto the fabric. These crayons contain disperse dye inside of them, so you’re still transferring disperse dye into the polyester fibers.
To set the dye, you use an iron. This provides the heat needed to open up polyester fibers enough to allow for the dye to set.
What Is The Best Brand For Synthetic Dye?
There are a few good options out there, but probably the most recognizable is Rit.
Rit is a common fabric dye company that makes all-purpose dye and synthetic fiber dye. When dying polyester, be sure to grab the synthetic fiber dye. It will say “polyester” on the front of the bottle, you know it will work on your polyester fabric.
Another great option is Jacquard iDye Poly. This is another brand that offers regular dye for natural fabrics, and a special dye for synthetic fabrics. Be sure to read the label carefully so you know you’re choosing the right one.
Finally, if you’re dying a fabric blend that is less than 50% polyester, you can use Dylon dye. The process is much simpler than for 100% polyester, so be sure to read the label directions before getting started. This dye will not work on 100% polyester but is a perfect option for polycotton blends of less than 50% polyester.
Can You Dye Polyester With Food Coloring?
The short answer is no. While food coloring may temporarily change the color of the fabric, it will wash right out the second the fabric gets wet.
The colorants in food coloring are water-soluble and polyester is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water. Food coloring doesn’t work for the same reason liquid dye doesn’t work.
Can You Reverse Dye Polyester?
To reverse dye, or remove the dye from polyester fabrics, the first thing you need to know is not to use chlorine bleach.
Due to the way polyester is made, chlorine bleach will damage the fibers and ruin your clothing.
If you want to remove dye from polyester fabric, the best option is to use oxygen bleach that’s designed for use on polyester fabrics. This will not only remove any dye from the fabric, but make a white item even whiter.
There are also dye remover products on the market that are designed to strip the dye from the polyester. Simply follow the package directions to properly remove the dye from your polyester fabric.
Up Next: Can You Tie-Dye Rayon?